When Max finally awoke late in the day, he didn’t have the energy to do anything more than take care of Alfred’s needs. He e-mailed the picture from his phone to the number on the detective’s card, then forced himself to eat some tasteless microwave dinner from the freezer. Everything tasted like sawdust.
Alfred hopped onto the couch beside him and put a paw on Max’s lap before giving Max a questioning glance. Max inclined his head, granting him permission. Alfred delicately climbed into his lap, curled into a ball, and began to purr. Max absently stroked him as he turned on something mindless on the television. He watched it for hours in a haze without registering a single thing until he fell into an exhausted sleep on the couch.
The next day, Max rose just in time to shower quickly and grab a cab to the police station. He had been tired to begin with because of the emotional toll, but with the dead detective haunting his dreams all night long, he felt like he hadn’t slept at all. To top it off, his neck twinged from the awkward position he had been twisted in, and he could feel a headache threatening on the edges of his consciousness.
Thankfully, Detective James had coffee ready for Max, and not police coffee but the real deal from a well-known coffee shop. Max would have kissed the detective’s feet for the caffeine, but that probably wouldn’t have gone over too well with either the detective or the rest of the police officers.
Detective James was very pleased with the clear photo print of the picture on Max’s phone. Max was asked to repeat once more what had happened to the detective’s partner, but instead of taking notes the detective had him speak into a voice recorder. Reliving it was just as hellish now as it had been in the hospital. Time had not dimmed the memory at all.
Afterward it took almost two hours for the police sketch artist to draw Max’s description of the men involved, but Max was impressed with how accurately the artist rendered the likenesses. Detective James had left the two of them working in an office when an anguished cry from the hallway several minutes later had them both turning toward the sound.
A man was crying loudly in grief, the sound absolutely heartbreaking. Max looked at the artist, who shrugged. Detective James slowly moved past the open doorway, his arm wrapped around the shoulders of a man who sobbed into his chest. The detective’s face was twisted in sorrow as he held the other man, and Max suspected it was about Detective James’s partner, the dead detective. Maybe the distraught man was family or a lover? Either way, Max felt a deep pang for the other men’s misery. He swallowed down the intense urge to join them and howl his own agony to the air.
Then to top it off when he got home, he had a message from Jackie on his answering machine, reminding him that his deadline was fast approaching. He’d better get his ass in gear and finish his current book. Damn it.
He hadn’t written a word in two days and had absolutely no urge to boot up his computer now. Neither his head nor his heart was in it.
How did she honestly expect him to write after everything that happened? Oh, wait.
Jackie didn’t know. Damn it.
The last thing Max wanted to do was call and tell her about it. He didn’t want to go through it all over again.
He did feel a bit guilty when he looked over into the dining area that he had converted into his office. The computer looked so forlorn just sitting there, and he swore he could feel his characters tapping their toes, impatiently waiting for him to finish their story. Well, they would just have to wait a little longer.
Max rubbed his eyes with his free hand, giving his characters a mental Shut up
. He didn’t have the energy or the will to do anything right now. Even a swim or yoga stretches held no appeal. His other hand stilled, resting on Alfred’s soft side as he peacefully slept on Max’s lap. Maybe he should give Jackie a call now to explain and have his deadline extended, get it over with. Max glanced at the time on the mantle clock sitting on one of his numerous bookshelves.
Nuts, it was too late to call now. Tomorrow would have to do. He yawned, then lifted a grumbling Alfred off him. Max gently laid him on the couch, rose, and headed for the bathroom. A warm shower was just what he needed before trying to sleep. An orange blur charged past him.
“It’s not a race, Alfred,” he called after the cat as he followed at a much slower pace.
Max felt better as the hot water pounded his shoulders, loosening the tight muscles. After several minutes, he turned off the water, opened the curtain, and froze. What was that?
In the misty bathroom, he thought he saw someone out of the corner of his eye, but when he turned, there was nothing there.
Shaking his head at his foolishness, Max flipped on the switch for the vent and toweled himself dry. Once wrapped in his robe, he opened the door to let Alfred in. The cat probably didn’t care, but Max had a thing about letting Alfred watch him shower…naked. No kitty ogling for Alfred.
Alfred jumped onto the wide sink top, then made himself comfortable as Max dried his short brown hair. It stood up in all directions as usual. He rarely bothered to brush it. Wouldn’t help it anyways.
Besides, the spiky look was in, so instead of disheveled, he was fashionable.
Max glanced down at his cat. Alfred was staring raptly past Max’s shoulder, ears forward, tail waving slowly back and forth. Icy fingers suddenly ran down Max’s spine, making Max shiver in foreboding. He turned to look in the direction of Alfred’s intense scrutiny but saw nothing. He glanced back at Alfred, who had risen to his feet and moved to the other side of the sink. He didn’t appear afraid, more curious than anything else.
Max shivered again as a feeling ran over his skin. Like…he wasn’t alone. How silly! Of course he wasn’t alone. Alfred was with him. There was no one else in the condo. He’d never been spooked by his imagination like this before.
“What do you see, little brat?” Max stroked Alfred’s head, trying to see what he saw. Maybe there was a spider running up the wall.
Alfred glanced up at him, then returned to staring into thin air. “Merrrow
.” He waved a paw in the air, reaching for something or…someone.
“Okay, now I really am being absolutely ridiculous,” Max chastised himself.
Alfred often stared off into space as if he could see something no one else could. Max abruptly decided not to shave and left the bathroom. After all, who would he shave for? Alfred? There hadn’t been anyone in his life for a long time. Not since Everett. And look how well that had turned out.
Max loved to write, but he admitted it was a very isolating thing to do. He lived with the people in his head, but he couldn’t touch them. Alfred helped, but he wasn’t human. He couldn’t give Max the conversation or the contact Max craved. Usually he didn’t mind the isolation, but every once in a while the loneliness would sneak up on him. Mr. Right Hand made a lousy date.
All the stress must have brought these feelings of loneliness on, made them more intense than usual. That was it. Without meaning to, his mind turned to the dead detective, and a sense of fierce longing filled him. Ever since the murder, his life had felt wrong, empty, like he would never be whole again.
“Alfred, I think that maybe tomorrow I’m going to go to a movie. Some comedy or maybe an action movie with lots of explosions. That will pull me out of this funk, right? What do you think?”
“Okay, then. It sounds like a plan.”
Max had never been the type to go to a club for a meaningless hookup. The few times he had attempted it, needing someone else’s hands on him had left him empty and promising himself he wouldn’t do it again.
A couple of hours lost in a movie surrounded by other people had to be better than being so lonely he began to hallucinate. Decision firm in his mind, Max put on his PJ bottoms and a T-shirt. He lay down and purposely ignored the sudden cold he felt run along his skin, as if a breeze had brushed his body. He pulled the covers up to his chin, resisting the urge to pull them over his head and hide like a child.
Sometime later, Max slowly opened one eye, unsure why. What had woken him? He had that same sense of not being alone but stronger this time. He glanced around until he spotted the dead detective standing at the foot of his bed. The dead man stood frozen with his arms crossed over his chest, simply looking at Max. Max closed his eyes with a sigh. He had to be dreaming—one of those lifelike dreams that felt real. But the feeling of being watched didn’t go away. He opened both eyes and stared at the dead man. The detective was still there, unmoving like a statue. He was tall, muscular, and gorgeous, his full lips nicely balanced by a strong jaw and straight nose. It gave him a classical male beauty that made Max’s heart flip over in his chest. Expression unreadable, those hazel eyes stared back at him. Max rubbed both his eyes, then rolled over, careful not to kick Alfred curled up by his feet. Damn dreams.
Honestly, why was he fantasizing about a dead man? They put people in nice, white padded rooms for that.
After a few minutes, Max realized that he had opened his eyes at some point and was staring at the wall. He blinked, then looked past his feet. The dead detective hadn’t moved, his gaze still fixed on Max. Max squinted, but the vision didn’t change. What the hell?
Max sat up, grabbed a bit of skin on his arm, and pinched hard. Shit! That hurt. Okay, not asleep then.
“I must be losing my mind,” he muttered.
The vision opened his mouth. “Yeah, welcome to the club,” it said in a deep baritone voice.
Max screamed like a ten-year-old girl, backpedaling on the bed until he hit the back of his head solidly on headboard. Alfred yowled in alarm, leaped off the bed, and scampered out the door.
The dead man jumped. “The fuck? What the hell is wrong with you?”
“You…you’re dead!” Max stuttered, pointing a shaky finger toward what could only be a ghost.
NICK HAD STARED in complete confusion at the smaller man as he lay asleep in the bed. What the hell was going on? First I wake up in a stranger’s home with no clue how I got here, and now I find myself strangely unable to leave the sleeping man’s side.
He was cute, yes, but there was something more, something that drew Nick like he had never been drawn before. While part of Nick wanted to pull the smaller man into his arms and never let him go, another part of Nick wanted to fuck the cutie through the mattress, and yet another
part of Nick was wondering what was wrong with him to make him feel this way.
Now that same man was wide-awake and spouting nonsense.
“Excuse me? I’m what now?”
“Dead! I watched you die…in my arms. Three days ago.”
Nick frowned. “Dead? What are
you talking about?” Great, that was all he needed. The man in the bed was loony tunes.
“Are you going to hurt me?” the man fearfully asked him instead, winding his arms tightly around his chest.
“Seriously? Of course not,” Nick said, disgusted that the smaller man would think he would hurt him. “Besides being a cop, I’d never hurt you.”
The man slowly lowered his arms, comprehension dawning on his face and gradually replacing the fear. “Do you know who you are?” he asked softly.
“Of course I know who I am. Detective Dominik Horvath. Nick.”
“Hello, Nick. I’m Max.” Max leaned forward, arms on his knees. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
Nick stared off into space, then frowned. Why was everything so hazy? He concentrated harder, trying to break through the fuzzy memories.
“I remember that I was going to meet my brother.” He paused, thinking feverishly. “Ivan said he was in trouble and needed my help. Then some men jumped me.” The images were coming fast and furious now. “They thought I was Ivan.”
“How could they mistake you for your brother?”
“Ivan and I are identical twins, and I didn’t tell them who I was. I figured I could find out what was going on so I could help Ivan, maybe get enough info to lock them up.” Nick hesitated. “Guess I was wrong.”
Nick remembered the last thug stabbing him. The pain in his chest had made it hard to breathe, the darkness closing in, then nothing. There was a vague memory of white, but that was it. Until now.
Nick looked about him. “I don’t get why I’m not in a hospital. I was hurt pretty bad.”
Max’s expression was one of sympathy, his stunning blue eyes shiny. “I’m so sorry. Nick, you didn’t make it.”
“This can’t be happening. It’s not possible. How can I be dead when I’m right here?” Nick slapped himself in the chest. “See?”
Max chewed on his bottom lip for a moment, obviously deep in thought before he answered, “Let me get dressed and we can talk in the other room while I get some coffee in me. I’m down about half a quart of caffeine.”
Nick snorted. Coffee always sounded good, but for some reason he didn’t want any, which was very strange for him.
Max threw the covers off his legs and stood. The PJ pants he wore hung low over his hips, revealing a tantalizing amount of skin between them and his T-shirt.
“Okay.” Nick continued to stand where he was, watching Max and enjoying the view.
Max huffed. “A little privacy would be appreciated.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.” Not.
Nick backed out the door. He wasn’t sorry at all. Max pushed all of Nick’s hot buttons. Making his way into the living room, Nick spotted framed old movie posters hanging on the walls, and he went over to look at them while he waited for Max.
A couple of minutes later, Max appeared dressed in well-worn jeans and a clean T-shirt. Nick stood just out of his line of sight, which gave him the perfect opportunity to study the other man. The jeans hugged his nicely curved backside. Max was shorter than Nick by several inches but he was no twink, not with those shoulders. It was obvious that Max wasn’t a gym bunny, but the T-shirt emphasized his sleek muscles. Nice.
“Aww, poor baby,” Max cooed, driving Nick’s eyebrows into his hairline. “Did Daddy scare you? I’m sorry. Come on. I’ll give you breakfast.”
Who was he talking to? Nick looked around but saw no one.
Max went into kitchen, pulled down a can, opened it, and put the contents into a small bowl that he put on the floor. An orange tiger-striped cat slowly made his way to the bowl, eyeing Nick warily. After a moment, the cat must have decided that Nick was no threat to his breakfast and lowered his head to eat. Max bent over to stroke the cat. Damn, the man really did have a gorgeous ass.
Next Max put a mug into an odd-shaped machine, inserted a small plastic thing in the top, pushed a button, and stepped back. Curious, Nick came closer, watching the machine from over Max’s shoulder. In moments, coffee flowed into the cup.
“That’s really cool. I’d been thinking of getting a Keurig machine for myself.”
Max jumped and screamed.
“Would you stop doing that?” Nick yelled as he recoiled.
“Then stop sneaking up on me!” Max yelled right back. “Damn it,” he added quietly.
“Aren’t you just a ray of sunshine first thing in the morning?” Nick commented wryly but with a small lift of his lips to belie his snark. Nick was struck again by the beauty of those cerulean-blue eyes.
“Don’t get between a coffee addict and his coffee first thing in the morning. It won’t be pretty,” mumbled Max as he reached for his cup.